Chalk Hill Estate Winery in Sonoma County is a real special place that I had the opportunity to visit many years ago. Chalk Hill Estate Winery is named after the AVA, which is a subregion of the Russian River Valley. Last month, I met with their new winemaker, Courtney Foley, to discuss her winemaking philosophy and vision for Chalk Hill Wines.
Chalk Hill Estate Winery
Chalk Hill Estate Winery is one of Sonoma’s premier producer of luxury wines. Courtney introduced us to the story of the original owner, Fred Furth, who was a class action attorney and an amateur pilot. In the early 1970’s, Fred flew over the vineyards and saw that it was fog laden, which he thought would be conducive to making aromatic white wines. After his initial flight, he bought the property in 1972. Fred was passionate about Chardonnay, and hence till today, Chalk Hill Estate Winery is known for its world-class Chardonnays.
In 2010 the winery was acquired by Foley Family Wines, with Bill Foley at the helm. Bill Foley was immediately drawn to the beauty, the landscapes, and of course the wines. Bill Foley both preserves the nature of the land and honors it by producing wines reflecting its exceptional qualities.
75% of the production of Chalk Hill is dedicated to aromatic white wines, although the unique topography, climate, and geological diversity of Chalk Hill creates an environment that allows for a wide range of varietals. The grapes grown on the estate include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Carmenére, Syrah and Semillon. Studious care is given to every detail, from the vineyard to the cellar, to extensive clonal research, and sustainable viticulture practices.
Courtney Foley – Head of Winemaking
Courtney Foley is Head of Winemaking at Chalk Hill Winery. Chalk Hill is her family home and so she has deep passion, respect and knowledge of the property.
Courtney went to law school at the University of Oregon where she graduated with a J.D. in Environmental and Ocean Law. She quickly realized that law was not her calling and that she wanted to pursue a career in wine. She later went on to study Enology and Viticulture at Napa Valley College and Fresno State University.
As the youngest daughter of Bill and Carol Foley(owners of Chalk Hill Winery), you would think it would be an easy and natural transition for her to move into the role of winemaker, but Courtney explains that was not the case. She chose to work her way up from the bottom. Stocking shelves to working in the tasting room, Courtney has strived to understand all aspects of winemaking with dedication and determination.
After working as winemaker for Foley Sonoma Winery, Courtney decided to return home this past summer and make wines for Chalk Hill. Courtney brings a decade of experience in enology, viticulture, winery general management and industry commercial understanding to Chalk Hill.
Courtney is passionate about Chardonnay and aromatic whites. She wants to honor Chalk Hill’s history. Her goal is to produce different varietals as they were produced and bottled in the 70’s. This will allow wine lovers who visit Chalk Hill to see the evolution of California wines over a period of time.
Courtney says California Chardonnay and Chalk Hill Chardonnays have evolved over the decades. 2018 was her first harvest at Chalk Hill and she is looking to make small changes. She wants to make wines that have higher acid and higher minerality, which she says is so easy to do at Chalk Hill with its soil and terroir. Chalk Hill has beautiful soils in part due to Mount Saint Helena. When the mountain blew up, it deposited a rich layer of volcanic ash. Later the river beds got pushed up and it exposed this layer of ash, which you can interpret as minerality. Courtney wants to showcase this unique minerality in her wines.
Chalk Hill Experience
Courtney and the Chalk Hill team are deeply committed to providing its guests a unique and memorable experience. Chalk Hill Estate Winery is located at the eastern edge of the Russian River Valley, south of downtown Healdsburg. The winery is approximately 70 miles north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge (a 1.5-hour drive) and 40 miles from the city of Sonoma (a 1-hour drive).
The spectacular 1300-acre property features 300 acres of vineyards, wilderness areas, winery, hospitality center, culinary garden, residence, stables, equestrian pavilion, sports fields, fishing and swimming ponds, and guest houses.
Chalk Hill offers many wonderful tasting room experiences to learn about the history and terroir and their wines. Courtney recommends the Culinary Tour and Tasting. You begin your excursion of the 1300 acre estate on a 1960’s open air hummer where you tour through the organic culinary gardens. You explore the hillside vineyards with its depth of terrain, slopes and views. Upon return, you arrive at the main estate culinary event pavilion, a glass conservatory overlooking the equestrian center with panoramic views of the Chalk Hill Valley. There you will have a culinary farm to table experience with the exquisitely paired wine and food. Chalk Hill offers a unique wine and culinary experience.
Chalk Hill Wines
We started off with the 2017 Chalk Hill Estate Sauvignon Blanc (SRP $33). Courtney says this is the perfect winter white, since it is slightly heavier in body than other Sauvignon Blancs. It is aged in neutral oak and stainless steel drums, allowing for the tropical flavors to stand out. Sauvignon Blanc is the second biggest varietal at Chalk Hill. Chalk Hill is an ideal place to grown Sauvignon Blanc with its rich clay soils. Courtney is looking to expand their plantings of this varietal, as it does very well in Chalk Hill. The Chalk Hill Estate Sauvignon Blanc is truly one of the best Sauvignon Blanc I have had from Sonoma. It is exotic, vibrant and complex.
Next we tasted the 2016 Chalk Hill Estate Chardonnay(SRP $42). This is the wine of choice for the Foley family. Courtney says it is one is her Dad’s favorite. The wine is rich, round and complex. It’s a cozy, comforting, big chardonnay. The highest quality French oak barrels are used in making this wine. An expressive Chardonnay with notes of lemon, orange and almond.
Felta was my favorite Chardonnay in the Chalk Hill lineup. The 2016 Chalk Hill Felta Chardonnay (SRP $75) takes its name from the alluvial soil on their estate called Felta. Its gravelly texture and naturally balanced nutrients allow for optimum growing conditions for Chardonnay. Felta has notes of apple and orange blossom, with a creamy texture. It is elegant and round, with inviting flavors of peach cobbler, buttered croissant and vanilla bean. Only 300 cases made.
Pinot Noir is a new project for Chalk Hill, they only started making Pinot six years ago. The 2016 Chalk Hill Estate Pinot Noir(SRP $48) is mostly the Mount Eden clone with notes of blackfruit that is very indicative of Russian River. The wine is elegant, bright and fresh.
My biggest surprise from the tasting was the 2016 Chalk Hill Syrah (SRP $60). The Syrah is planted on a steep southwest-facing hillside, made up of rocks and volcanic soil. It’s as close to the Rhone Valley as you can get. The label is fun for all the wine geeks out there, with information on harvest, alcohol, barrel aging and production. This is an exceptionally gorgeous wine, and I can’t say enough about it. Classic Rhone style with aromas of blackberry, black olive and cigar box. The flavors follow the aromas with smoky blackberry and white pepper notes. This is a rich wine with nice tannins and a memorably long finish. An exceptional one of a kind Syrah.